Process Mapping Basics

Introduction

This is the first article in the Fundamentals of Process Mapping series. In the series, I want to discuss the areas that most process mapping tutorials miss.

In this bite-sized article, I’ll introduce the idea of a basic process map.

Let’s get some background about process mapping first.

What is a process map?
A process map is a tool. It is not an end in its own right. They are often used in software development lifecycle or within Business Process Re-engineering (BPR). If the methodology you’re working in states that one is required, you’re not writing a map just to fulfill that aim, but because the creators of that methodology realised that a process map would be a useful tool to have.

I see a process as one component of a process description, not necessarily the only component. That’s worth remembering.

What are the purposes of a process map?

I have at least four aims when I’m process mapping:

  1. To describe a process in pictorial form
  2. To provide a quick way of understanding how the main steps in a process fit together
  3. To provide documentation for agreeing what happens in a process
  4. To provide documentation for what could happen in a process, e.g. process improvement

There are other aims depending on the need, e.g. for collaborative working, facilitating workshops. Whatever the discrete aims are, they all boil down to communication.

What are the components of a process map?
Every process has at least one process step, at least one starting point and at least one ending point. The process step is an action that is performed by an actor (either a person, a system or an organisation).

Our initial basic process will have the following:

  • one starting point
  • two process steps
  • one end point
  • connectors showing the direction of flow


For the process map here starts at Process Start, continues to Process Step 1. Once that is complete, continue to Process Step 2. Once that is complete, continue to Process End and the process is terminated.

To put that into context, imagine a simplified process for buying a book in a bookstore.

The customer wants to buy a book, so process start (Buy a Book), customer Chooses a Book, then Customer Pays for Book. Once that’s complete, the Book is bought. I’ve simplified it so we can discuss it in more detail later on.

Notation
Your software may have different notation for process start/initiators, process ends/terminators and process steps (often just called processes). That’s ok. As long as you can tell the difference between them.

What Next?
That’s the very basics covered. I’ll go into more detail about processes, process steps, decision points and common pitfalls in the following articles in the series.

Fundamentals of Process Mapping

I’ve written before about the elements involved in a process map. In this series of articles, I want to start at the basics and explain what a process map should contain. I’ve seen a fair few methodologies come and go. Fortunately, methodology seems to be settling down with a few interesting branches appearing. I’ve also seen and used a lot of different process mapping tools at different levels, some more like CASE tools, some more like business process management tools, some just diagramming tools.

The aims of this series
I want to work with better-written process descriptions. I want to pass on best-practice as I’ve seen it after working with a lot of process and business analysts. I’ll discuss why following the methodology is not enough on its own, nor is just creating process maps on their own.

I am not writing against any software lifecycle methodologies, any project frameworks nor am I saying one tool is better than another (although I may touch on that). What I will provide are tips for improving the process analyses that you create regardless of which tool, methodology or framework.

Why am I writing this series?
As part of my BPR activities, I’ve received a lot of process descriptions that are not detailed enough, not internally consistent, not wide enough in scope, have gaps in them…in short, not good enough. It doesn’t matter to me who did the analysis, what counts is that someone (maybe the same person) is going to have to do more work to get it up to scratch.

If the work isn’t improved, then it causes problems further down the line. Some examples of the problems caused:

  • increase in customer complaints because agents can’t handle their questions
  • having to hire in more people as process gaps are identified
  • having longer queuing times because the the time taken to complete the process was underestimated, based on too simple a view of the process.
  • delay to process implementation while the correct level of detail is captured
  • stakeholder conflict as the invalid process maps highlight distrust between the operational teams and the process improvement teams

I’d prefer it if the process descriptions were defined properly in the first place. So please, distribute this.

Lean or Lean Startup

There’s a lot of hype around Lean Startup for at least the last year. The positive thing is that much of this hype is well-deserved; the concepts have changed the thinking of a lot of its readers. Having a foot in both camps as a lean practitioner improving services and organisations and as an entrepreneur roughly adhering to the Lean Startup method, I think it’s important that we are all clear on the difference between the concept of the lean startup method and lean organisation.

I like a lot of the concepts in The Lean Startup written by Eric Ries. However, from viewing social media conversations and articles, it appears that a lot of readers are confused as to what the focus is. It’s not about about creating a lean organisation (i.e. an organisation that operates in a lean manner). Instead it concerns creating an organisation in a lean manner, using a methodology analogous to Lean, itself largely based on TPS (Toyota Production System). The book doesn’t reflect how the organisation will operate. Fortunately, you would expect an organisation that was built using lean methods to have a better change of being lean itself. Unfortunately, it doesn’t necessarily follow.

Now, enter The Lean Entrepreneur by Brant Cooper and Patrick Vlaskovits which is just going through pre-release. From the table of contents, this book does appear to discuss creating an organisation that will operate in a lean manner. While this is something that I would tend to do naturally, I look forward to reading the book and understanding how other people would approach the same challenge.

 

Issues with Process Mapping

I’ve been using process mapping for over a decade now. I’ve probably been the recipient of more process maps than I’ve created, as I’ve had to implement changes that have already been designed by others. I’ve also had to talk many business users through the intricacies of their redesigned processes, especially if they (wrongly) hadn’t been designed by them. The most common scenario for me is where I’m asked to review process maps and assess how easily they could be implemented, bringing together knowledge of people, processes and IT/ICT.

Over that time, I’ve seen many sides for and against process mapping. I’ll discuss some of the issues and some of the methods for mitigating the risks associated with mapping processes.

1. Takes too much time

Mapping a process takes a long time. If that’s the only method that’s being used, then it will take longer than you expect. The only exception is that if you’ve been through similar exercises before, then you should already have some idea of how long it can take. To get a high level map is easy, to get to sufficient detail that a reader can understand the process takes a lot more time. This is time is extended if there is interaction with IT systems and different locations.

2. No standards

Some people map processes for a living. Worth bearing that in mind if you’re new to it. You can generally tell how much relevant experience a person has by looking at their output and any comments they attach to it. Have they picked a standard notation? Do all the decision points have two or more outputs? Are decisions labelled differently to process steps? And so on. Whatever the standard, a process map should be internally consistent. If a decision is a shaped as a diamond in one part of a map, then all decisions should be diamonds.

3. Conflicting standards

Assuming that the process-map author used a standard, it often doesn’t conform to the standard that the rest of the team are meant to be working with. The level of rigour required – as driven by an evaluation of potential risk – determines how closely diagrams have to conform to the standard. Some deviation is often permissible, and may even introduce new ideas, just bear in mind that a process map is a communication tool. The more standards people have to learn, the less concise and the less effective the tool becomes in communicating.

4. Not enough detail

The most common issue I see is that I receive just a process map. There has to be more information. The process map is a diagram of the process, but it isn’t the process itself, nor is it a complete description of the process. It is one tool for communication, there are others and analysts should some of these should be used. For instance, there should be a process description supporting the process map. This would provide the detail of each process step, providing elements that couldn’t be included in the diagram. Remember that a process map is a diagram and you’ll often need words to describe the process more completely. Words or pictures alone are often not sufficient, the combination of the two together work really well.

5. Too much detail

Better too much detail than too little. I’m always curious if there’s such a thing as too much detail in process maps since the aim is to capture everything so that it can be understood, replicated, changed and/or implemented.

My current answer to this is “yes”. Once you’re into the realm of mapping something that’s rarely done, has very little associated risk and you know you’re going to change it, then you don’t need much detail.

You also don’t need much detail if you’re just trying to scope out the activities of an organisation.

Another indication of too much detail is when an analyst has focussed on one area more than another such that most maps are high level and one is too detailed in comparison. So unless there’s reason to concentrate on that one area such as you know you’re going to be doing that in the following stage, I’d start to think that there’s too much relative detail.

6. Users don’t understand them

Process maps should be easy for users to understand. If they’re not, then question the standard; are you using the most appropriate standard? For instance, I noticed that early versions of UML Activity Diagrams confused users due to the diagonal lines making the sequence of events unclear. Many of those Activity Diagrams still included horizontal and vertical lines, but the standard permitted diagonals. Compare that to later versions of the Activity Diagrams. Now, I’ve no idea if it’s the standard or just best practice that means that most lines are horizontal or vertical, but either way, I’ve seen a change towards that practice.

It is also worth taking a key or legend with you or at least explaining it in person. Mention what a process step is, what a terminator is, what a gateway is and how to read them. Especially talk through the difference between parallel and sequential processes.

7. Users aren’t involved with them

This is stake-holder management. By and large, people resist change. Not involving users in the process mapping exercise increases the risk of resistance and increases inaccuracy. The fewer users, the greater the risk. Fortunately, it’s rarer nowadays to see the creation of process maps not involving any users. But take it a step further, instead of a review process, move some of the ownership or responsibility onto the users. That doesn’t mean that they should be responsible for creating the maps, but that they should be happy with their content and happy that they represent what they do.

8. Don’t have the tools

You can’t do process maps well in MS Powerpoint. You can get so far and do a very high-level sketch, but you can capture detail that way. Trying to results in a mess, a divergence from standards and a confused user.

At worst, use MS Visio. This should be the lowest level of IT tool you should use. Better still, find a purpose-built tool. Make sure you can export into a format that your audience can open and read. Test the export and read process a few times. Visio used to be a bit unpredictable in its export output, but that seems to have settled down a lot. All depends what version you’re using and what the diagram includes.

If you’re a bit old-school and use post-its on brown-paper. Tape the post-its down once the process is agreed.

9. Use PowerPoint

In contradiction to the previous point, PowerPoint has a very useful feature in that its main deficiency as a drawing tool can be thought of as an advantage; i.e. it constrains the complexity of the diagram. I use it to show value chains and simple process maps. The diagrams usually have 6-10 steps and little branching. For this brief, overview type of process map, PowerPoint is ideal.

Use Case Diagrams for Documenting Scope

Use Cases

I embraced UML as a communication tool some years ago and have found it successful in being able to convey messages in a simple manner. I don’t use every type of diagram – some are too strange for the average business user. I do use Use Case diagrams. These are great and, with a small amount of education, are suitable for use with business users.

Use Case Diagrams for Scope

As a communication tool, Use Case diagrams are great at showing who does what at a very high level. They’re good at showing system solution scope, types of actors and ownership of integration points. In one diagram, I can show the scope of the system in a way that users will understand. Now that’s a powerful tool.

Depth of the Scoping Use Case

Ideally I like to have short Use Cases, perhaps 2 or 3 sentences at the highest level. Used like this, they don’t conform to the more common view of Use Cases, but they do give a good, brief overview of what happens in the solution. More detail is required in later stages, but you can’t beat a concise description to get the ball rolling.

Why use Use Case Diagrams for Change Management?

There’s a system involved. By system, I don’t necessarily mean an IT software application. There are people, teams, dependencies on other organisations, dependency on phone network being available and so on. Often the people in the change team, including the users themselves are not aware of all the interactions that they have with these external organisations (including teams in the same organisation). This is where a simple Use Case comes in. It can show, at a single glance, the main interactions between the team in question and their environment. I use them to gain a joint understanding of what the team does now, or what they’re trying to change to.

Multi-level Use Cases

Originally the concept was that a system had 10-20 Use Cases. If you had vastly more than that, then you were doing it wrong, it you had less than 5, you probably weren’t analysing far enough. Time’s moved on and real-world, practical experience has been added to this. What analysts and software methodologists/project methodologists came to realise was that the power of Use Cases was that they were readable and understandable by users but that to capture sufficient detail, they were becoming unwieldy and cumbersome. Alistair Cockburn has been influential in his work promoting Use Cases at different levels, some will be user and high-level, some more detailed. It does raise the risk of implementing a more traditional waterfall approach where one analysis has to follow on from another.

Use Case Diagrams for Developers

I know that there’s a strong argument for not using Use Case diagrams at all. This comes from developers and I can understand their perspective. That’s fine by me, I expect developers to know what works for them better than I do. In their case, the text of Use Cases counts for more. That doesn’t prevent analysts from using the tool.

What’s in a process?

I’ve had a view for a number of years now that a process cannot be described with just a process map.

Well, not in its entirety. A standard process map usually consists of rectangular boxes linked with arrows. Better process maps have some variety in the size and shape of boxes representing the variety of actions and decisions that occur at the process steps. When good, these process maps conform to BPMN, UML (Activity Diagrams) or other similar standards. When bad, there can be missing outcomes from decision points, missing references to other processes or references to missing processes and so on, the list goes on.

How Deep?

However, no matter how good the process map, they cannot completely describe the process. Take the instance of capturing an AS-IS process, perhaps during the check phase of lean systems. A process map would only give a brief description (1 to 20 words maximum usually) of the process step in question. Just as a process can be broken down into process steps, process steps can often be broken down to a further level. And then those steps can be broken down again. In practice, there’s a point of diminishing returns after which you decide that enough detail is enough and that to gather more detail, although useful, would not be cost-effective. So it follows that no matter at what level you stop when looking at business processes, there’s always a level of detail that you’re missing. There are exceptions to this, for example when designing circuits, then the process steps may well be atomic. In most cases with business processes, there are further, more granular levels.

BPMN and UML Activity Diagrams are good at showing relationships between steps, including the order and control flow of the process steps and how they link together. That’s useful and should be used. The process maps should be consistent with the standard that the author is using. So make sure that if follows the rules. Simplistically, any decision point has to have at least 2 outcomes. If it has only one, then there wasn’t a decision. How does the standard deal with branching, merging, delays, broken or disjointed processes? Find out and use it. But that’s not all.

So what is missing from a process definition?

Most often, I find that the underling rationale for the process is missing. A process or a process step exists for a reason, usually it’s do something. In reality, the process steps in a process map are representations of what something or someone does on a routine basis. More commonly, it’s an actor (a person or a system) doing an action to transform an object. This could be processing an application form, taking a payment, assessing eligibility, writing a letter, creating an account and so on. Let’s take one of those in more detail. A likely scenario of processing an application would have:

  1. a customer submitting an application form
  2. the organisation receiving the form,
  3. an agent checking the application for completeness
  4. the agent recording the application on the organisation’s system
  5. the agent assessing eligibility
  6. the agent giving a reply to the customer (by letter or email)
  7. if the application was accepted, then a new service or entitlement is started on behalf of the customer

Input and Output 

The common item throughout all the above is that there’s an application form being processed. The customer fills it out, the agent assesses it. It goes on a journey and the process steps cover that journey. The application form probably has a “for office use only” on it. Sound familiar? Well the agent would be filling out that part. What’s important is the each process step receives the application from the previous process step. So the application is an output from step (1) and an input to step (2). By noting these on a process map or in an accompanying text document, we’ve improved the quality of process map incredibly. So if a process step needs to receive something, list it as an input. Similarly for output. Often, any analyst who’s previously been a developer  will probably focus on data inputs and outputs to a process, e.g. parameters that have to be passed along the journey. Watch out though, paper, faxes and files are equally as important.

Transformations 

Back to the rationale, the process step will transform the input into the output. These transformations should be recorded. So if the agent adds something to the application, record that fact in the process description. Bear in mind that the process step can (so far) only achieve an output by transforming an input. By recording these, we’ve added more detail and more rigour to the process definition.

Record Data Usage 

In step (5), the agent assesses eligibility. Maybe they retrieve some customer details based on the information in the application form and perhaps also retrieve a sliding scale as a reference. These are pieces of data that the process step uses to change. Ignoring human emotion, the output can only come from a combination of input, retrieved data and an algorithm. From what we covered earlier, the algorithm could be broken down to more more granular steps. The process step could also update a retrieved form or create further data to be stored somewhere. This retrievals and updates should also be recorded as part of the process definition. At a high level, I’d expect to see which systems are being used per process step. At the next level down, we should cover data at the conceptual level (e.g. Customer, Car, Address). Another level down, I’d be looking to record usage of data at the logical level (customer first name, customer last name, address postcode, car registration number). To some extent, the old Data-Flow Diagrams handled the flow of data between process steps. The combination of ERD and DFD seems to be have been lost in today’s modelling skills.

Channels 

In step (6), I mentioned “by letter or by email” rather lazily not differentiating between how the process may differ for each channel. The process should be consistent with the channel that it applies to. If there’s a change in the channel or medium, these should be recorded. Coming from implementing multi-channel solutions, I like process maps to be applicable to all channels and only show the exceptions. In practice, this often requires a split, either due to the time nature of the interaction (synchronous or asynchronous) or whether it’s electronic or in person.

Where? 

Reading the steps in the list above, you’d expect steps (2)-(7) to be performed by an agent in the same place. If the geographic location changes, then record this. Same goes for teams, although using the swimlanes in BPMN and UML should already cater for these. Ideally, anything that changes about the environment in which the processes are conducted should be recorded. It’s best to describe what I mean by example here; if an analyst or group of analysts are mapping a group of processes, if all the processes are performed in one location, then that can be recorded in the text description of the process. If the location changes per process or process step, I’d expect to see each step have the location recorded. It’s better to be explicit rather than leave people guessing, especially where you have the opportunity to reduce ambiguity.

Summary 

To recap, a process definition should consist of at least:

a) a textual description of the process and each process step
b) a control flow of the process through each process step
c) zero or more inputs to the process and to each step
d) zero or more outputs from the process and each step
e) zero or more retrievals for each step
f) zero or more updates for each step
g) environmental variables

Any decent modelling tool should as a minimum allow the analyst to capture this information, be it diagrammatically or textual.

In my experience, the vast majority of analysts do (a) and (b) only. Some analysts make an effort at doing (c) and (d) with varying degrees of success. Get any analyst with a process background rather than full understanding of the systems development life-cycle and you’ll be struggling to get anything beyond (c). I’ve made some generalisations, but they are true from my experience.

Yet there’s still more to capturing an accurate description of a process. Each process has attributes (e.g. time taken, peak volume, average volume, etc.) that should also be recorded.

Facilitation

4 ducks in a field watched by a lamb
4 ducks in a field watched by a lamb
4 ducks watched by a lamb. Facilitation in nature.

Regardless of the project, sometimes we all need an external guide to help us along. Facilitation brings structure to events, ensuring that attendees stay on-track.

The facilitator needs to be sensitive to the needs of the attendees and the needs of convener. The two sets of aims may well not be the same. Good facilitators will bring about results regardless of the differences.

Facilitation sessions are split into 4 phases:

  1. Initial engagement, identification of purpose, high-level scope definition
  2. Planning, arranging, engagement with attendees and procurement
  3. Facilitated sessions
  4. Output report and review

Previous clients have found facilitation useful for setting strategy, uncovering the real underlying problems and deciding on solutions to difficult problems

If requested, any follow-on work beyond the output report is contracted separately.

If you think you could benefit from a facilitator, contact us for an overview and further details.

Mentoring and Training

Bottle Stack
Bottle Stack

All of the changes facing every organisation require skilled personnel, either increasing a team’s knowledge in the tools and techniques used for change or by mentoring analysts, providing guidance and supervision.

Training

Training packages can be developed in the following:

Each training package is bespoke, specifically tailored to the client’s needs.

Mentoring

Mentoring is a longer engagement than training, designed to offer support to your staff in their profession. For those involved in the change profession (change analysts, business analysts, business process analysts), we can provide a mentoring service; either with regular drop-ins or remote via email or onto your organisation’s existing discussion forums. This service should be considered as supplementary to the standard employee mentoring and welfare within your own organisation.

It is ideal for SME (Small-to-Medium Sized Enterprises) with one or two business analysts, but who do not have sufficient need or resources to accommodate a wider analysis function. This service provides mentoring by a senior analyst, reducing what could otherwise be an costly commitment for a small organisation and providing experience from a number of industry sectors.

This mentoring service will open up the opportunity for your own staff to think more strategically and, eventually, develop your organisation’s target operating models.

Want to know more, then contact us.

Service Redesign

Yorkminster
Yorkminster
Yorkminster – design on design on design

Are you designing a service or transforming an existing service?

For redesign, we help organisations to reform teams more logically and change the way that they work resulting in more efficient processes. This is more structured and more logical than older BPR (Business Process Redesign) concepts as we’re heavily influenced by Lean but in a service environment.

At the smaller end of the scale, there are service improvement engagements and delivering strategies and methods for continual improvement. We can’t implement the continual improvement for you; that has to come from within your own organisation, but we can be there with you on your journey.

For new services, we assist organisations in developing their new operating models. At this level, it’s not the strategic target operating model, it’s a more tactical design that has to be workable in a live situation with real customers. It should link to the target operating model and indeed should move your organisation closer to achieving that target.

Methodology Design

Angle-poise lamp
Angle-poise lamp
Angle-poise lamp, show some light

This starts with a review of your team, what it’s trying to achieve and how it’s trying to achieve that. Following that, we can advise on and develop suitable methodologies that will work for you and what you’re trying to achieve.

The main focus with previous clients has been on integrating change methods and software development methods. Often the project management method is already present within the client, even if it’s just what their practitioners bring with them. Sometimes, it’s a different combination or developing a new change control process that fits in with what the stakeholders expect of it.

Want to know more, then contact us.